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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128

David Lurie was once a professor of classics and modern languages at Cape Town Technical University, but, in the changing climate toward pragmatics and rationality in postapartheid South Africa, he has been relegated to teaching “communications skills,” which serves to strengthen his feelings of obsolescence in a rapidly changing culture. Lurie is further alienated from social relations by two divorces and his recent estrangement from his child, Lucy, who lives on the Eastern Cape. Lurie’s social aloofness has led him to satisfy his sexual urges with a prostitute named Soraya, until he destroys the arrangement by attempting to contact her outside their normal meetings. Lurie soon attempts to fill the resulting void with a twenty-year-old student in his Romantic poetry class named Melanie Isaacs.

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Lurie successfully seduces Melanie after a couple of missteps, but she is reticent during the few sexual encounters they have; Lurie is conscious that at least one of these encounters is only barely consensual and is tantamount to rape. Melanie’s attendance in Lurie’s class becomes sporadic, and it is clear that Lurie is losing control of the situation; Melanie’s boyfriend harasses him, and his car is vandalized. Lurie grows increasingly certain that his students know about his affair, and soon his fears are confirmed by a visit from Melanie’s father.

Lurie evades Mr. Isaacs, who has come to discuss the affair Lurie is having with his daughter; he is not, however, able to evade the sexual harassment case filed against him by the university. Lurie has no patience for the proceedings; he is given ample opportunity to express remorse, enter counseling, and save his job, but he steadfastly refuses. It seems to his colleagues as if he purposefully wishes to destroy himself. He succeeds; Lurie resigns and moves from Cape Town to his daughter’s smallholding in the town of Salem on the Eastern Cape.

Lucy lives alone on her small farm, raising and selling crops and running a small kennel. Lurie has difficulty adjusting to the life of the farm but soon occupies himself volunteering at a local animal shelter, as well as helping Lucy on the farm.

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The alien but peaceful routine of the farm lasts until Lurie and Lucy are attacked by three black men they invite inside to use the phone. The men quickly take Lucy into the house and lock the door, and Lurie is knocked unconscious while the men take Lucy to another room and rape her. Lurie awakes to find himself being doused with a chemical and set afire; he loses his hair and suffers severe burns to his scalp. The men have killed all but one of the dogs in the kennel and stolen everything of value, leaving the house a shambles. Lucy reports the attack and the burglary but refuses to report the rape, much to Lurie’s chagrin.

After the attack, it becomes clear that Lucy’s neighbor and business partner Petrus was somehow involved, but Lucy refuses to change anything about her living situation, which further enrages Lurie. Soon, at a celebration with Petrus in honor of acquiring more land, Lucy sees one of the men that attacked her, a disturbed youth named Pollux. Still, she refuses to press charges.

As their disagreements cause the distance between Lurie and his daughter to grow, Lurie spends increasing amounts of time at the shelter with Bev and even has a brief affair with her. Lurie’s duties consist mainly of assisting in the euthanasia of the dogs and disposing of their bodies. Lurie is becoming increasingly affected by his involvement with the animals, and he eventually takes over the cremation duties to ensure that the dogs’ bodies are treated respectfully.

During this time, Lurie repeatedly argues with Lucy and entreats her to move, but she refuses; Lurie eventually returns to Cape Town. In Cape Town, Lurie seeks an audience with Mr. Isaacs and finally apologizes during an uncomfortable dinner; when Lurie finally takes up residence in his house again, he finds it has been robbed and vandalized. He eventually visits Lucy again at her home, and discovers she is pregnant from the rape and determined to keep the child. Lucy decides to sell her land to Petrus in exchange for permission to stay in the house, and for his protection—an arrangement that amounts to a civil marriage. The novel ends with Lurie renting a room in Grahamstown, helping Lucy at the market on weekends, and again volunteering at the animal shelter.

Further Reading

Attridge, Derek. “Age of Bronze, State of Grace: Disgrace.” In J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Examines the relationship of Disgrace to the political and cultural landscape of South Africa in the late 1990’s.

Attwell, David. “Contexts: Literary, Historical, Intellectual.” In J. M. Coetzee and the Politics of Writing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. A thorough introduction to the complex themes of Coetzee’s work and the relation of that work to South Africa.

Barnard, Rita. “J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and the South African Pastoral.” Contemporary Literature 44, no. 2 (2003): 199-224. Examines Disgrace as depicting the erosion of the myth and reality of the pastoral ideal in South Africa.

Beard, Margot. “Lessons from the Dead Masters: Wordsworth and Byron in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” English in Africa 34, no. 1 (May, 2007): 59-77. An in-depth examination of the role of the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Lord Byron in Disgrace, which moves beyond a reflection of Lurie’s Eurocentrism toward larger issues.

Cooper, Pamela. “Metamorphosis and Sexuality: Reading the Strange Passions of Disgrace.” Research in African Literatures 36, no. 4 (2005): 22-39. Investigates the processes of Lurie’s evolution in Disgrace as related to social and political shifts in sexuality in postapartheid South Africa.

Cornwell, Gareth. “Realism, Rape, and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Critique 43, no. 4 (2002): 307-322. Examines Disgrace as a realist text in the context of Coetzee’s relationship to and critiques of realism.

Donovan, Josephine. “’Miracles of Creation’: Animals in J. M. Coetzee’s Work.” Michigan Quarterly Review 43, no. 1 (2004): 78-93. Explores the relationship of themes in Disgrace and other Coetzee works to the author’s animal rights advocacy.

Herron, Tom. “The Dog Man: Becoming Animal in Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Twentieth Century Literature 51, no. 4 (2005): 467-490. Elaborates on the function of animals in Disgrace to address issues of race and language.

Kossew, Sue. “The Politics of Shame and Redemption in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.” Research in African Literatures 34, no. 2 (2003): 155-162. Explores the influence of postapartheid South African politics on the relationship between the private and public worlds in Disgrace.

Marais, Mike. “J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and the Task of Imagination.” Journal of Modern Literature 29, no. 2 (2006): 75-93. Makes a detailed case describing Lurie’s redemption in terms of his development of a “sympathetic imagination.”

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